Sorghum on the menu: Crop gets cool makeover

Look out quinoa – an Australian-grown ancient grain with serious health credentials is gaining ground on menus as awareness builds about its many benefits.

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Having recently beaten wheat to become Queensland’s most valuable cereal crop for the first time, according to the Queensland Department of Agriculture[1], sorghum’s profile is on the rise. Gluten-free and said to be high in nutrients, it’s finding its way onto menus as chefs and farmers alike recognise its benefits as a healthy, versatile and tasty ingredient.

If you did a straw poll asking people if they had tried sorghum you might be met with some puzzled expressions.

An ancient grain that’s part of the staple diet in countries such as Ethiopia[2] and India, in Australia sorghum has historically been used almost predominantly as a feed for livestock, both domestically and in export markets.

Yet it is not only one of Australia’s most valuable crops, valued at more than $666 million in 2014/2015 according to ABS figures [2], it is also undergoing important change.

Things are shifting as awareness grows about both the culinary versatility and nutritional qualities of the grain.

In 2016, Australian food lovers’ magazine Gourmet Traveller included sorghum in its annual Hot 100 list of the latest and greatest in food trends. The magazine predicted sorghum could overtake quinoa as the next champion cereal and make an increasing appearance on the menus of trend-setting restaurants in Australia.

A drought-tolerant and high-yield crop, sorghum ticks the environmentally sustainable box too. And it’s naturally gluten-free: leading food manufacturers are now using it for gluten-free products. These include Freedom Foods and Sanitarium, the latter which launched a gluten-free version of its iconic Weet-Bix using sorghum.

https://www.sanitarium.com.au/products/weet-bix/weet-bix-gluten-free/gluten-free-weet-bix

It’s all music to the ears of some Australian agribusiness operators working to raise the profile of sorghum as more than just animal feed.

Genetic scientist and sorghum breeder, Professor David Jordan from Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation

Farm to plate story

Dan Quigley, whose sixth-generation farming family has been growing sorghum on their Dalby property for more than 50 years, has been working with some of Brisbane’s best chefs to develop recipes and encourage the use of sorghum on menus.

Quigley is in the process of rolling out retail sorghum products under the brand name Fairmount – named after the family property. The first stockist will be Brisbane’s award-winning food store, Sourced Grocer.

“It’s a really interesting space at the moment,” says Quigley. “Sorghum has basically just been used as a feedstock and that’s still what it’s mostly used for here but there are so many other uses.

“You can use it as flour, as a raw grain cooked like rice, puffed like popcorn or flaked. I’ve even sold some to a small craft brewer who wanted to use it to make a gluten-free beer. And we’ve sold it into China where they ferment and distil it to make the traditional beverage, baijiu.”

Quigley says when he started working on raising the culinary appreciation of sorghum in Australia more than five years ago people thought he was “weird”.  “This has been about creating demand, creating a market really,” he says.

Acclaimed Brisbane chef Jocelyn Hancock is one of the chefs Quigley’s working with to show the potential for sorghum on menus. A champion for regional Queensland produce, Hancock says she’s experimented with sorghum in a few different forms with good results.

“I’ve used it in its raw form in savoury dishes such as salads and the fine flour to make a gluten-free pattie,” she says. “The popped sorghum is really nutty and earthy in flavour and great with a leaf-based salad or cucumber. You just treat the popcorn as a toasted nut – delicious.”

Sorghum demand drives product development

It’s been a similar story for family-owned and operated agribusiness the Woods Group, which added a food manufacturing arm to its cropping operations in 2012.

The Goondiwindi-based Woods family, which first started grain production in southern Queensland in the early 1950s, established Woods Foods with the aim of developing and manufacturing quality food ingredients using its chickpeas and faba beans. However, increasing demand for sorghum products convinced them to add that as well.

“Woods Foods was really set up to be based on our pulses; sorghum has been a by-product,” says director Angus Woods, who spearheaded the development of Woods Foods.

“We weren’t actively looking at sorghum for human consumption until after starting our food business but it’s grown from nothing to be an important part of the business,” he says. “We have orders for various sorghum products like flour or the puffed product going out twice a week.”

While to date Woods Foods’ sorghum business has been wholesaling to food manufacturers like breakfast cereal producers and bakery companies, it’s preparing to also launch its own retail range of healthy snack food products based around sorghum in 2017.

“The opportunity’s there, ready to be grabbed,” Woods says. “People are looking for good, honest, simple and nutritious foods which haven’t been too altered. And sorghum fits the bill.”

Drought-tolerant focus

The domestic interest in sorghum as a food is an exciting development for the future of the crop in Australia, says genetic scientist Professor David Jordan from Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation.

He’s spent most of his working career in the research and development of the grain that, for the first time last year, surpassed wheat as Queensland’s most valuable cereal crop, according to the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries[1].

“There are certainly opportunities for sorghum,” Professor Jordan says. “Especially there is a big market for coeliacs and gluten avoiders.”

Professor Jordan says current research and development to continue improving sorghum’s performance has a strong focus on doing more with even less water.

“Sorghum is a very drought-resistant crop – you just have to look at the parts of the world it’s grown in – sub-Saharan Africa, some of the harshest places,” he says.

“And [with the work we’ve done] there has continued to be a steady increase in drought tolerance and water use efficiency in sorghum crops. A lot of work’s still being done around that – you can always improve.”

Professor Jordan adds he expects to see expansion of the geographies that grow the crop. “There’s certainly expansion to the north … and advances to the south [further into NSW]. And with climate change we’re seeing summer rainfall zones moving southwards … so we’re starting to see sorghum grown where it hasn’t been before.”

 

1 – AgTrends Update: April 2016 – Department of Agriculture and Fisheries QLD

2 – Feeding Africa: Cereal Crops Background Paper – October 2015